Baltimore Goes from Dumb-sters to Smart Trash

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Baltimore is kicking its old trash cans to the curb and wheeling out a new $15 million public works project which involves installing approximately 4,000 smart bins around the city.

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Mouser Electronics.


Baltimore is kicking its old trash cans to the curb and wheeling out a new $15 million public works project which involves installing approximately 4,000 smart bins around the city.

smart trashThe new bins include sensors that monitor their fill level, relaying the information to a central dashboard where sanitation workers can monitor the status and deploy collection staff at optimal times to empty full bins and skip ones that are not yet full, resulting in significant savings in manpower, time, fuel, and overall operational costs.

The Baltimore bins are “CleanCubes” manufactured by Ecube Labs, a company joint headquartered in Seoul, South Korea and Los Angeles, California.

Tech the Bins Out!

The solar-powered CleanCube comes with an in-built trash compactor, to pack in eight times more rubbish than other non-compacting bins. The bin sends information in real-time, wirelessly, to its cloud-based waste monitoring and data analytics platform (CleanCityNetworks) for city sanitation workers to see.

The bins – galvanized steel with a special high-density polyethylene coating to make them resistant to corrosion, vandalism and regular wear and tear – can also be customized with various features like LED backlights, LCD panels, graphic wraps, and WiFi routers.

The solar power array on top charges a battery internally to operate the compaction mechanism, which crushes the trash inside the bin. The compaction also serves to know how full the can is, by measuring the resistance, and is equally handy in terms of safety. For instance, a fire inside the bin would trigger the mechanism which would then crush the fire out and extinguish it.

Compaction Force in the CleanCube is up to 700kgf, and a compaction cycle lasts approximately 40 seconds. This is facilitated by a 1/6-HP DC geared motor, with a unique X-frame drive and a smart microcontroller-based automated system.

The telecommunications (GSM) component and other sensors are all also powered by the solar panel.

System Voltage clocks in at 12 Volts DC, while the company says power consumption is about 15Wh/day on average. The Silicone battery comes as either a 100L: 12V 36Ah battery, a 120L: 12V 46Ah battery or a 240L: 12V 46Ah battery. The solar panel is a crystalline silicon module which comes in various flavors from 100L: 35W PV panel to a 120L: 50W PV panel to a 240L: 50W PV panel. All panels come with a Polycarbonate protective cover.

The bins get flashy with LED status indicator lamps and safety features that include being flood resistant, mostly fire safe with their fire detection and suppression mechanisms, vandalism protected with access locks on the front, top and sides, CE certification and human hand safe (with their ability to detect hands inside.)

Bin There, Done That – The Move Towards Smarter Waste

Ecube claims one CleanCube is as effective as six traditional trash cans.

“This is why a lot of cities are transitioning towards smart waste,” said James Noh, development director for Ecube Labs. “Most of our clients see up to an 80% reduction in their waste management costs, though some cities benefit more than others.”

Some 70 cities in 60 countries worldwide have bought in to Ecube’s vision thus far, but Baltimore is on track to be the largest smart can roll out in history. Other cities like Boston and Santa Clarita, Calif., have opted for similar systems. Installation in Baltimore began in early September, with about eight bins a day being installed in a three-phase rollout which should be completed sometime in 2019.

The rollout is being done in phases, so the city of Baltimore and Ecube can still customize the remaining bins based on the feedback they get on those already installed. Building a bin from scratch is a two-month process, said Noh, not including the one month it takes to ship it to its target market.

Once the first bins are de-boated, Ecube sends a crew over to train any maintenance or installation crews and “hold their hands through the first few phases.”

The bins themselves are quite heavy, around 450lbs, so it takes at least two people to install one. The first ones have made their appearance in the South Baltimore Gateway/Casino area, and soon, they’ll be littering the city’s business districts and bus stops.

Cash from Trash

“Waste management has been the same for the last century,” explained Noh. “Cities have trash cans that are collected on a set schedule. When you collect on a set schedule, they could be empty, they could be partially full, they could be overflowing, nobody really knows, so it’s incredibly inefficient, but until now there really was no other way.”

That thinking is what sparked Sean Sun-beom Gwon’s idea to start Ecube from his college dorm room. The millennial founder and CEO has said in interviews that he was frustrated with the overflowing waste bins area around his university in Seoul, which led people to simply throw trash on the floor.

One day while stomping trash inside his own bin at home so he could fill it up some more, the idea hit. He enlisted some college peers to build a prototype of a compacting waste bin as a simple project. That “simple project” started attracting government grants, awards and funding.

Sun-beom Gwon realized that one man’s trash could be another man’s treasure, and the basis for a thriving business. It wasn’t long before he founded the startup and entered the market in 2015 after two years of R&D on his bins. The company now boasts 50 employees.

“There isn’t much competition yet, it’s a new industry, relatively small, not a lot of players, and most of the ones that do exist tend to offer more off-the-shelf solutions,” said Noh. “Our bins are completely custom and made to order. We provide everything from the smart sensors to the monitoring platform.”

Smart bins don’t come cheap, though. According to Ecube, one bin costs between $3,000-$5000 including the warranty, maintenance, insulation and service, but Noh explained that cities buying in bulk enjoyed an “economies of scale discount”. For those who don’t have city-like purchasing power, the company also makes a sensor that you can attach to a regular old dumb bin to make it smart. That’s a fair bit cheaper.

Baltimore installed a trash wheel four years ago to use sunlight to help trap garbage floating down a local river. It has cleaned the water of as much as 38,000 pounds of water in a day. Clean cities, it seems, are part and parcel of a smarter future, one we should be wasting no time to achieve.

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